West Marches: Secrets & Answers (part 1)

Writing about world-building in the expansion to Microscope got me thinking about West Marches again (more on that in part 2), so I’m taking a break from my kickstarter to answer some questions that have piled up.

Some of these ideas I’ve mentioned before but never elaborated on. Other bits are things I’ve never talked about at all. Because I know lots of people have played or wanted to run West Marches games of their own, I’ve tried to clarify which choices were critical to making the concept work and which were just personal preference. Because there is more than one way to march west…

The Player’s Handbook

Even though I wrote the blog posts in 2007, the actual campaign was years earlier. We started West Marches at the very beginning of 2001 and ended in 2003. 3rd Edition D&D had just come out and we used it for the entire campaign (3.5 wasn’t released until after the game ended).

West Marches character creation followed one very simple rule: you could only build characters using the original Players Handbook. No classes, races, feats, nothing from any other source. And because everything in the Players Handbook was allowed, I could just say, “If it’s in the Player’s Handbook, it’s good” without having to look over anyone’s shoulder or screen characters.

Even religion worked that way. Need a god? Just pick one of the friendly faces in the book, read the tiny paragraph and you’re ready to go. Want to buy something? Check the price on the equipment list and spend away. The only caveat was that no one sold alchemical crap like tanglefoot bags and sunrods for the simple reason that I hated faux-technology stuff. Get a torch or get a wizard!

Using just the Player’s Handbook made life simpler because there were no debates about whether to allow X, Y or Z in the game. It wasn’t even an issue. But even more importantly it started players on the right foot by putting them in the driver’s seat. They didn’t need to ask me to approve anything. If they had the Player’s Handbook, they could make their own decisions. It put them in a West Marches mindset before they even started playing.

Every Square is 5 Feet

The idea that the Player’s Handbook was inviolate, that it was a bedrock you could trust and swear upon, started with character creation but it ran right into game play. Specifically, combat.

Unlike every previous version of D&D (and I mean every single previous version), 3rd Edition did not require judgment calls just to run a simple melee. You didn’t have to ask the GM whether you could get past the lizard man to attack the chief this round or who your fireball would hit. You could just look at the battle map, count the squares and make your move. You could open your PHB, read a page from the combat chapter, and know exactly what you could do and what to expect.

If you started with 3rd Edition or later, this may not seem like a big deal. Trust me, it was. Huge. It fundamentally transformed how D&D was played. As a GM, it meant I could set up the situation and then kick back and let the players decide how to tackle it. They didn’t have to ask me what they were allowed to do each round or hope I ruled in their favor.

Without this fundamental shift, West Marches would not have been possible. Or it would have been a much weaker shadow of itself. Players could never have felt that they were really in control of their own destiny if they had to play “mother may I” in every battle.

Rooting for the Players

Because the rules were well-documented and clear, there were lots of times when West Marches combats would become fascinating (albeit life-threatening) tactical puzzles for everyone at the table. We would all gaze down at the battle map (me included!) and ponder possible moves. Was there a way the barbarian could zig-zag through the kobold hordes and pounce on the shaman lurking in the back? (answer: yes, with clever manuevering he could avoid all but one attack-of-opportunity) Could a totally underpowered rogue anchor the line and prevent the bugbears from wrapping around and flanking the heavy fighters by just dodging like crazy instead of attacking? (answer: yes. By holding her ground in a fight that was out of her league she averted a total party kill at Zirak-zil) Could a staggered retreat get everyone out of the Hydra Cave in one piece? (answer: no. Really, really no)

I’m not talking about telling other players what to do (coaching sucks), I’m talking about analyzing the rules and the options after a player has declared a plan they want to try, but aren’t sure how it will play out mechanically. Someone would say “hmm, could I get to the shaman without getting clobbered by attacks-of-opportunity?” and invite the tactical huddle. These discussions levelled the playing field as far as rules knowledge went. Someone could be totally new to D&D but make reasonable decisions because if there were rules consequences they did not foresee everyone else could (politely) help them understand the odds. Again: informing, not coaching. Characters getting wiped out from making poor decisions was completely legit, but getting wiped out because you misunderstood the rules was not the danger I was trying to promote.

And when I say I would be chatting and trying to figure it out just like everyone else, I mean I really was. Once the combat was under way and the situation was pretty well understood, I often didn’t have any secrets. When a creature attacked, I would happily tell players exactly what its attack bonus was and roll the dice in the open. When a PC attacked, I told them the armor class they were trying to hit. I didn’t tell them actual hit points but I was pretty clear about how wounded something was. Most creatures in West Marches didn’t have weird or surprising abilities. You could generally look at the battle map and see what was up, so I could chat and analyze possible moves just like the other players did.

Being open about basic stats reinforced the idea that the dangers came from the monsters on the table, not from me. Player decisions and the forces in the world mattered, not my whims. When attacks were made, the players looked at the dice, not me. I could root for the players and even help them understand how the rules worked in their favor and it didn’t hurt the tension of the game even slightly. The combat rules of 3rd Edition D&D made that possible.

To be continued. Part 2, West Marches Gods & History…

    Ben Robbins | July 27th, 2015 | | show 34 comments